By halftime Friday night at Carnesecca Arena, commentators and pundits had all but handed Saint Mary’s a victory over a baffled and out-of-sync St. John’s team.
By the end of regulation, the Gaels were wondering how they let their first win over a ranked squad since 2012 slip out of their grasp.
The 53-47 St. John’s victory was a tale of two disparate halves, underscoring both the Red Storm’s greatest strengths: a long, frustrating defense and the ability to get to the rim, as well as its greatest weaknesses: poor shooting and offensive execution.
Friday capped a taxing, if not confounding, seven-day stretch for the Gaels. Randy Bennett’s team earned its best win of the season over Creighton in Omaha on Saturday in its first game of the year outside of Moraga, Calif. Saint Mary’s then flew back west to host Northern Arizona on Tuesday and promptly lost to the woeful Lumberjacks, perhaps as a result of looking ahead to Friday night’s showdown in Queens.
In the first half, the Gaels used a mixture of quick passing and basket cuts to subvert an elite St. John’s defense that holds opponents to .874 points-per-possession, fifth-best nationally. Brad Waldow did an excellent job of positioning himself to create passing lanes and earn space in the Red Storm interior, and drew Chris Obekpa into foul trouble. By the half, he had outscored the entire St. John’s team with 19 points, and Saint Mary’s led 33-18.
It’s unclear whether Steve Lavin merely slammed a chair or threw it all the way across the locker room at halftime, but whatever he did worked. St. John’s came out in the second half with a purposeful defensive aggression rather than the flailing chaos it put forth in the first twenty minutes. This helped hold the Gaels to just 14 points and caused a succession of Saint Mary’s turnovers that turned a 15-point St. John’s deficit into a six-point lead.
With Friday’s win, the Red Storm have no bad losses and only one in total, to the Gaels’ perennial WCC foe Gonzaga, but also have one of the weakest schedules thus far of any Big East team. Out-of-conference tilts against Long Beach State and Duke will help raise that rating, as will regular Big East conference play. But that increased level of competition will necessitate adjustments.
The Red Storm have to eliminate long stretches of offensive confusion. They barely shot 25 percent in the first half and during one stretch, in which they almost exclusively relied on long two-point attempts, went 10:08 without a field goal. If St. John’s settles for jump shots like it did during the first half Friday night for an entire 40 minutes, it won’t win games. The Red Storm must use the speed and athleticism of D’Angelo Harrison, Phil Greene and super sixth man Rysheed Jordan to put opposing defenses on their heels rather than forcing shots.
In order to beat St. John’s, most teams will try to go around them rather than at them. Saint Mary’s experienced success Friday when it found the spots where St. John’s defenders weren’t, then attacked those spaces with dribble penetration. Waldow was often out of the way and inconspicuous, until suddenly he wasn’t, either receiving the ball behind defenders right at the rim or driving with the ball in the lane.
Key to the Red Storm’s success during conference play will be locking down and denying ball access to similarly impactful Big East post players like Georgetown’s& Joshua Smith and Villanova’s JayVaughn Pinkston
As Saint Mary's heads toward the beginning of conference play, it's setting itself up to face a familiar conundrum come March: having a strong win-loss record but still sitting on the NCAA tournament bubble.
The Gaels have an elite big man in Waldow, and an excellent distribution system in Australian freshman point guard Emmett Narr, as well as guards Kenny Carter and Aaron Bright. Saint Mary’s rich guard history has often centered around elite scoring (see: Mickey McConnell, Patty Mills). This current crop could stand out for its ability to be creative with the ball and get Waldow and fellow big man Dane Pineau involved.
Saint Mary’s is 109-37 dating back to the 2010-11 season, but 2-11 against ranked teams during that same span. With only Northeastern and Morgan State left on the schedule in advance of WCC& play, Saint Mary’s will need a win against one of the league’s top two teams (Gonzaga and BYU) in order to state a convincing case to the NCAA tournament committee. Without a victory over either of those teams, Saint Mary’s will be at least an eight, and potentially a nine or 10-loss team at the end of the regular season. It has never made the NCAA Tournament with more than eight regular season losses.
Saint Mary’s might not take down the Zags, but knocking off the Cougars is well within its grasp. The Gaels rebound surprisingly well and have post height beyond Waldow and Pineau that it can utilize against WCC front courts, which is not a luxury it traditionally has had.
Even though St. John’s forcibly took away what would have been Saint Mary’s signature win this season, not all is lost for the Gaels.
Nonetheless, that won't stop Randy Bennett and company from looking back on Friday night less than fondly during Selection Sunday.